Not every fictional victim gets the chance for last words. But it’s interesting to see how many crime novels include dying words. It’s tricky to handle dying words effectively. For one thing, a lot depends on how the fictional victim dies. In many cases, it wouldn’t be possible for a victim to say anything. And there’s the matter of melodrama. That said though, dying words can be very interesting; and sometimes, they’re important clues to the killer.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She feels that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. It seems that Helen’s sister Julia suddenly died after a strange series of eerie noises and unexplained events. On the night of Julia’s death, Helen heard her sister scream. She rushed from her bedroom into the corridor and saw her sister there. Julia was only able to say,
‘‘Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’’
before she died. Helen could make little sense of the words, but now, she’s hearing the same strange noises that preceded Julia’s death. Holmes and Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the estate where Helen lives, and investigate to find out who would want both women dead and why. I know, I know, fans of The Boscombe Valley Mystery.
In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at a guest house belonging to wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Also staying (but in the main house) for the weekend are Levering’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. As you can guess, the atmosphere at the house is tense, so Queen spends most of his time at the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from his host, who says that he’s been murdered. He tries to say more, but because he stutters, it’s extremely difficult for him to get anything out. And at least at first, Queen can’t make sense of what he does say. In any case, he rushes over to the main house. But by then, it’s too late: Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. It turns out that Benedict knew all along who killed him; had Queen understood what he was saying, the case would have been solved before it began. But of course, that wouldn’t make for riveting reading…
Agatha Christie used dying words in more than one of her stories. For instance, in The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), Bobby Jones is golfing with his friend, Dr. Thomas. At one point, they’re looking for a ball that went over a cliff when they see a man who’s fallen off the cliff and landed below. Jones goes to stay with the man as Thomas rushes off to get help. So Jones is alone when the victim says,
‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’
and then dies. The words seem meaningless at first, but as Jones and his friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent ask some questions, it becomes clear that the man was murdered, and that he’s the key to something much bigger than they’d thought. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.
Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallender novel, Faceless Killers, begins with brutal attacks on a rural farmer, Johannes Lövgren, and his wife, Maria. Johannes dies before any help can arrive, but Maria lives long enough to be transported to emergency care at the nearest hospital. She, too, later dies, but not before uttering the word,
That one word means serious trouble for Wallander and his police team. There is already simmering resentment against immigrants in the area. If it gets out (which it does) that these murders were likely committed by foreigners, there’s no telling what might happen. And when the media hears about it, the police have to deal with a real backlash – including the murder of a Somali immigrant who was living at a nearby camp. Now the police have to fend off the media, solve the murder of the immigrant quickly (so as not to appear prejudiced) and continue to work on the Lövgren case.
And then there’s Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is an undermaster at the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, in Scotland. One morning he wakes to the news that there’s a dead body in his classroom. He finds that the dead man is apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, and that Davidson has been poisoned. The most likely suspect is his romantic rival, music master Charles Thom, who is duly arrested. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to help clear his name and get him out of prison. Seaton agrees and begins asking questions. He saw Davidson alive, not long before his death, and now that vision comes back to haunt him. Davidson had tried to get his attention, but Seaton didn’t respond. Now he discovers that two other people did respond: local prostitutes Mary and Janet Dawson saw Davidson and tried to help him. Neither they nor Seaton can make sense of Davidson’s dying words, at least at first. But as we find out, those words have a lot of significance.
And that’s the thing. Dying words often do have a significance, both in real life and in crime fiction. It’s just that sometimes, it’s harder to work out what the meaning is than it is other times. Which fictional dying words have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow.